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Changes To The Naturalization Interview Process Of Questionable Value

by Alan Lee, Esq.

USCIS recently released a 4/25/08 memorandum from Acting Associate Director of Domestic Operations, Don Neufeld, regarding changes in the naturalization interview process to "improve the alignment of essential naturalization activities with the skill sets of our workforce". These changes stem from USCIS's hiring several hundred new adjudicators in response to the surge of applications it received last summer and introducing its new officers and staff to the process.

For the most part, the memo recognized that not every office would be able to immediately implement every change, but that offices are encouraged to implement them where possible. The only change effective immediately is a minor one that applicants should sign their photos using their normal signatures and that signatures do not have to be legible and names may be short and consistent with the applicant's normal signature. The following presupposes implementation of all of the changes.

The common thread of the changes is that - in an effort to utilize the new personnel effectively - U.S.C.I.S. will be making applicants face a battery of personnel dividing tasks traditionally done by just one examiner. The perceived difficulty here is that many applicants will feel much more intimidated and unsure of themselves as they face more questions by persons with different accents. It is difficult enough for many applicants to understand one accent much less three or four.

Upon arrival at U.S.C.I.S., the U.S.C.I.S. worker (likely non-officer level) will have the applicant review the N-400 interview preparation notice which asks if any changes have occurred since the time of filing. The notice to be given on the day of interview asks the applicant to review a list of topics and to be ready to verbally provide any updated information to the officer during the interim. The topics are whether name, address, or phone number have changed; information regarding the number of children and whether there are additional children; whether the applicant is married, and if the application is based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, whether the applicant is currently living with the spouse; whether employment status has changed, and if employed, the name and address of the current employer; whether the applicant has been arrested or convicted of any crime anywhere in the world; whether the applicant has ever been ordered or deported/removed from the United States; and whether that applicant has submitted a form N-648 for medical disability exception with the application or whether the applicant plans to submit one today. Field offices are also encouraged to verify naturalization certificate preparation biographic information with the applicant before the interview. That information includes country of nationality, date of birth, eye color, hair color, and marital status.

The applicant will then be shuttled to an officer (most likely immigration information officer although the memo provides for higher grade personnel also) for administration of the civics test and English language reading and writing proficiency test. (An information officer is not an examiner, but a lower grade officer).

Following this, the applicant will meet with the immigration examiner (adjudications officer or applications adjudicator) who will go over the N-400 contents with the applicant and whose questions will focus on eligibility such as crimes or other bars to citizenship.

Last, the "post-examination process" where duties which have historically been performed by the interviewing officer, will be handled by a non-officer. These duties include scheduling of a follow-up appointment for English literacy and/or civics testing; photo and/or certificate signing; and oath ceremony scheduling.

As new employees will be doing some of the interviews, supervisors have been instructed to monitor and observe these new officers to assure that they are asking essential and important questions. This means that during the interview process, it will not be uncommon to have additional employees present.

The naturalization interview for most applicants is nerve-racking enough without the added pressure of facing three-four different immigration personnel in an assembly line process. It must be remembered that many naturalization applicants are not very familiar with the English language, and study very hard to face the challenge of the naturalization interview and test. These changes while undoubtedly proposed with the best intentions will have a dampening effect on their ability to naturalize. The question that U.S.C.I.S. should be asking itself is whether it wishes to encourage or discourage these permanent residents in their citizenship quest. While U.S.C.I.S. may wish to make more efficient use of adjudications officer time, the benefit would not appear to outweigh the cost of more failed applicants along with confusion and dread on their part in being passed from one person to another. Applicants deserve better for the $675 they now pay to the agency as filing fee. (We remember long ago which the filing fee was $15). Other negative aspects of the changes include temptation by each of the way-station handlers to amplify their roles and to ask more questions than would an examiner presently, and the additional amount of time that applicants will have to spend in the immigration office as the file passes through the multiple way stations. And the memorandum fails to go over the situation in which the testing officer may determine that the applicant has passed the test, but the actual adjudicator does not believe the applicant to be a good candidate for citizenship because he or she stumbles over questions on the application or cannot answer questions well because of lack of true English proficiency. In that case, is there a conflict? If the only question is English proficiency and the applicant has already passed the English test with the testing officer, can the adjudicating officer reject the candidate on English grounds alone? These factors and questions all make the Neufeld scheme less than satisfactory. The present system of having the interviewing officer go over the application and administer the testing - while not perfect - should be preserved. The N-400 interview preparation notice should simply be handed to the applicant with explanation but no questions by the receptionist or (in a small office) by the guard at the door. Verification of naturalization certificate biographic information takes less than one minute and should still be done with the adjudicator who already has the applicant and file before him/her. The only change which this writer whole heartedly endorses is the post examination process being handled by a non-officer since that occurs after the interview.

© Alan Lee, Esq.

About The Author

Alan Lee, Esq. the author is a 25+ year practitioner of immigration law based in New York City. He was awarded the Sidney A. Levine prize for best legal writing at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1977 and has written extensively on immigration over the past years for the ethnic newspapers, World Journal, Sing Tao, Pakistan Calling, Muhasha and OCS. He has testified as an expert on immigration in civil court proceedings and was recognized by the Taiwan government in 1985 for his work protecting human rights. His article, "The Bush Temporary Worker Proposal and Comparative Pending Legislation: an Analysis" was Interpreter Releases' cover display article at the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in 2004, and his victory in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a case of first impression nationwide, Firstland International v. INS, successfully challenged INS' policy of over 40 years of revoking approved immigrant visa petitions under a nebulous standard of proof. Its value as precedent, however, was short-lived as it was specifically targeted by the Administration in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.

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